Immunity protection for athletes

Maintaining a healthy immune system is paramount for any athlete and determines their ability to handle sufficient training and get to the start line in good shape. Whilst it may be impossible to avoid ever getting sick, there are definitely precautions we can take to support our immune system and this includes dietary factors. 

Exercise actually strengthens your immune system but very high volumes and intensity of training puts stress on an athletes immune system – meaning that elite and serious athletes are often more susceptible to picking up colds and sniffles. 

The option of reducing training or easing up is not really an option for many athletes. You can still give your body a little assistance though, ensuring you are fuelling it well not only for performance but for health.

Some important things to remember and implement year-round to support your immunity, these are particularly important during heavy training blocks:

Ensure your body is being supplied with all necessary nutrients. 

This means eating a varied diet including fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and wholegrains, while limiting processed and refined foods. Try and get as much colour on your plate as possible! In particular foods high in vitamins A, C and E, B6 and B12 along with iron, zinc and selenium and adequate amino acids (proteins) are critical components for maintaining immune health.

Total energy intake is important. 

  • Both very high and very low energy intakes compromise your immune system and increase the risk of infection. If you are aiming to lose weight then make sure it is at a safe and realistic rate – no more than 0.4-1.2 kilos per week. Drastically restricted energy intakes will not only mean you have reduced energy for effective training but will also add pressure to your immune system, further reducing your ability to train. Go into workouts adequately fuelled and pay attention to recovery nutrition, this will combat some of the negative effects hard training has on immune function.
  • Avoid low carbohydrate diets which have been associated with increased levels of stress hormones and decreased immunity. If you happen to already be suffering a cold, boost up carbohydrate intake.
  • Too much fat will impair the immune system, reduce intake of saturated fats and instead concentrate on essential fatty acids 
  • A broad-spectrum micronutrient supplement may be beneficial as an ‘insurance’ against inadequate diets, but should not be relied on or used as an excuse to not eat well. Micrnutrient deficiencies are associated with a suppressed or impaired immune system however, over supplementation or mega doses can be more dangerous as high levels of some vitamins and minerals are toxic to the body with severe consequences.
  • Research suggests that Vitamin C and Zinc may reduce the duration and severity of colds when taken at the onset of upper respiratory tract illness. 
  • Include yogurts with live bacteria (probiotics) for digestive and immune health. Probiotics have been shown in studies to help fight illness by improving gut bacteria.
  • Ginger, garlic and chilli have antibacterial and antiviral properties while fresh herbs are a concentrated source of micronutrients. Plus they add so much more interest to almost any dish!
  • Maintain a good fluid intake. Being dehydrated adds additional stress to immune function.

Other considerations: 

  • High levels of fatigue associated with training, work etc may mean compromised food preparation and consumption. Some good planning might be needed to make sure you are eating healthily!
  • Always wash hands and pay attention to hygiene in shared areas such as gyms, pools and change-rooms.
  • There is an elevated risk of respiratory tract infection following hard training so stay away from crowded areas and avoid others if they are sick.
  • Get plenty of sleep and try to reduce stress from other areas of your life (if possible).


– Pip Taylor

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